There must have been a time when someone thought it would be prudent to install a “public interest payphone” outside the volunteer fire station in Wytopitlock, a small village in northeastern Maine. But today, it’s hard to find anyone who remembers how it got there, or the last time someone used it. Or even what a public interest payphone is.

Reed Plantation in southern Aroostook County got the Maine Public Utilities Commission’s permission to disconnect its public interest payphone, which hangs outside the Wytopitlock Volunteer Fire Station. Photo courtesy of Michelle Austin

And so it was an easy call Wednesday, 156 miles away at the Maine Public Utilities Commission in Hallowell, to honor the town’s request to hang up the payphone and say goodbye.

In deliberating the fate of a single, lonely phone in a remote village, state bureaucrats considered an obscure and quirky rule in Maine’s telecom laws, highlighting a tenuous connection to the past in an age of mobile communications.

A public interest payphone is part of a program established by the Legislature in 2005. The purpose was to locate coinless phones that allow free local calls, 911 emergency and paid long-distance calls in locations where a telephone “will further public health, safety and welfare.” The cost is subsidized by phone customers, up to $50,000 annually, through the state’s Universal Service Fund.

Today, the phones are scattered around 35 far-flung communities. One of them is Wytopitlock, which is part of Reed Plantation, an unorganized town of 140 residents at the intersection of Aroostook, Washington and Penobscot counties.

“But we’ve never seen anybody use it,” said Steve Waite, a town fire warden. “Driving by or at the station, we’ve never seen anyone make a call from it or pick it up.”

That lack of use led Diane Hines, the town manager, to write to the PUC commissioners in early May. Hines explained that not only is the phone rarely used, but using it would cause confusion, because it has been listed as being at the Wytopitlock school, which is down the road from the fire station and is now being used as the town office.

Hines noted that firefighters want the phone removed so they can install a vending machine for snacks. That would be welcome by the community. A nearby soda machine is very popular and raises money for the fire department.

If someone did use the town’s payphone, there’s a good chance Michelle Austin would see it.

Austin is the town clerk and Wytopiltock’s postmistress. The post office is attached to the fire station.

“It’s been a long time,” she said, when asked last time she saw someone making a call. “I can’t tell you. With cellphones, nobody uses it.”

The phone hangs on an outside wall next to the front garage door of the fire station. A blue sign above it reads, “Public Interest Phone,” with an icon of a telephone handset. Austin said she’s not sure when it was installed. A link and map on the PUC’s website says 2010, but Austin said it was there in 2007, when she bought a house in town. That’s also the year the first iPhone was released.

Reed Plantation is bounded on one side by the Mattawamkeag River and bisected by Route 171. Some workers commute 30 or 40 miles to Lincoln and Houlton. And if residents want more food variety than they can find in a small grocery store in nearby Danforth, then Lincoln or Houlton is their destination. The long distance to a store is another reason a new vending machine would be popular with locals, the town indicated in its letter.

Maine’s public interest payphone program actually has its origins in Portland.

Herb Adams, a historian and former state representative, was hearing complaints about telecom companies removing their unprofitable payphones. The resentment was widespread, ranging from his densely populated urban district to Cliff Island, Portland’s most distant, Casco Bay neighborhood. It came from people who either didn’t own a cellphone or lived where reception was poor.

And it was Cliff Island that got Maine’s first public interest payphone, in 2006. The sole payphone for the community of 60 year-round residents had been yanked a few years earlier from outside the community hall, leaving no public phone for island emergencies. Now there’s one by the post office.

Today, according to the PUC, the phones can be found at public spaces across Maine that include the Greenville Police Department, the Lamoine Consolidated School and the Madawaska fire station. And they’re still valued in urban areas by people who don’t own mobile phones. One was installed in downtown Biddeford in 2016.

The continued existence of public interest phones makes Maine unique in the United States, according to Mark Thomas, who runs a website called The Payphone Project. For 25 years, he has been tracking the slow decline of payphones and phone booths.

The website features photos of payphones from around the world, including a research station in Antarctica. By chance, Thomas wrote a story this month about Maine’s public interest payphones and included photos from many of their locations, such as the Fraternity Village General Store in Searsmont.

“As far as I can tell, Maine’s the only state in the union that actively deploys public interest payphones,” Thomas said.

Maybe that’s not surprising, said Todd Griset, a partner at Preti Flaherty in the law firm’s energy and telecommunications practice.

Griset noted that the village of Bryant Pond in western Maine had the nation’s last hand-crank telephone system, and drew worldwide attention when it was shut down in 1983. Travelers on Route 26 today pass by a black, 14-foot-high replica of a hand crank, a cultural landmark on the way to ski country.

It’s a dead ringer, for sure, but like a payphone, it doesn’t even register with younger people. Griset said his daughters, ages 7 and 9, probably have never seen a payphone.

“I haven’t used a payphone in a while,” Griset said. “Maybe since high school. And I’m 41 years old.”

Nobody’s going to be using a payphone again in Reed Plantation. After a short discussion Wednesday, the three PUC commissioners agreed to the town’s request. They noted the law’s background, the process for review and the town’s reasoning. They also pointed out that during the required public comment period, no one commented.

No one debated the desire to have snacks closer at hand or the need for a second vending machine, and maybe that was a good thing. Waite, the fire warden, said the department has since discovered the machine they want is too big for the spot where the payphone hangs. They have a new plan to install it elsewhere.


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